Advice from Many Masters: Kill your babies

Jan 11, 2012 | Better Writing

I’m sure that the first time I came upon this phrase it was “Kill your babies” and attributed to Aldous Huxley. Would that it were so simple.

When I started putting this post together, I found several versions of the phrase, exploiting the verbs “kill” and “murder” and the objects “babies” and “darlings.” I like, “Kill your babies.” You may prefer “Murder your darlings” or some other version. Pick one.

I also found that, in addition to Aldous Huxley, the phrase has been attributed to at least William Faulkner, Arthur Quiller-Couch and Gertrude Stein. Modified versions of it were supposedly uttered by Samuel Johnson and Ben Franklin.

Regardless of what version you like or who said it, it’s great advice.

When you write your book or blog or article you will, sometimes quite by accident, craft an absolutely splendid phrase or example. You will love it, as you might a baby.

That’s OK. But if that phrase or example doesn’t move your piece forward or if it doesn’t help you make your point, you need to get rid of it. It’s hard, really hard, because you’ve written something great. You’re emotionally attached to it and you want the world to read it. But if it doesn’t help the piece you’re working on, it needs to go.

Over the years, I’ve developed a way to do this that makes the process less painful for me. I put the splendid phrase in a “Killed Babies” file. Every now and then I review that file. Some splendid phrases have become titles of later works. Some have sparked ideas. Some remain splendid phrases awaiting a splendidly appropriate purpose.

Remember this: Just because it’s good writing, doesn’t make it good for this piece of writing. Kill your babies.

Want more? Check out the complete list of Advice from the Masters posts.

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